In snap parliamentary elections, Azeris put hopes in young candidates

Huseyn said was excited, because he voted for the 1st time - he was too young to vote at the previous elections. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Modernisation in Azerbaijan.

Exit polls look good for the ruling party in Azerbaijan’s snap elections, held on Sunday (9 February). The main difference compared to past elections is that many more young and Western-trained people are expected to fill the 125-seat Azeri Parliament.

Long-term President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party won a majority of seats in Sunday’s snap parliamentary election, according to exit polls.

The opposition criticised the vote, denouncing electoral fraud and widespread ballot-stuffing. The fairness of the elections is expected to be assessed on Monday in a first communiqué by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Around 350 OSCE officials monitored the election, some of them long-term.

EURACTIV visited two Baku voting stations chosen at random where the vote was taking place in normal conditions. At first sight, the turnout appeared low – there were more local observers than people coming to cast a ballot.

Final results are yet to be announced, but voter turnout was initially put at 47.81% (2,547,982 voters out of 5,329,461).

Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) secured 69 seats in the 125-member parliament, the Milli Majlis, according to two exit polls. This is the same number of MPs as in the outgoing Parliament, where two parties had one and two MPs respectively, and 53 were independent.

Executive Secretary of YAP Ali Ahmadov wrote on Facebook “I can congratulate the member of New Azerbaijan Party with another victory”.

Exit polls were conducted by local observers working for two western agencies – AJF & Associates Inc. (US) and the French OpinionWay Research Institute.

In October, Aliyev dismissed his influential chief-of-staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and made other high-profile changes including the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister. The snap election that followed is seen as part of a reshuffle of the elite.

The authorities made big efforts to present the elections as a democratic contest and a shift from over-control to controlled democracy, in which independent-minded and Western-trained people would have a say.

1,314 candidates were registered. 246 candidates were nominated by 19 political parties while 1,057 were self-nominated, and 11 were nominated by initiative groups.

In terms of gender representation, 21% of candidates were female while 79% were male.  While the proportion of women is low, it was in progress compared to the previous election. Historically, the Milli Majlis is considered to be the first secular parliament in the Muslim world.

In Azerbaijan, the key word in politics seems to be “young” – a synonym for Western-trained, pragmatic and possibly pluralistic-minded people.

The situation may be different in rural areas, but in Baku many people said they were excited by the chance to vote for young candidates with successful careers, many of whom have gained prominence on social media.

Surprisingly, no resentment or criticism was noticed for the older generation, as if the old guard had accomplished their role and simply had to make way for younger MPs.

One female voter said her favourite candidate in her constituency, for whom she was going to vote, was a young male professional with journalistic background. If she could choose outside her constituency, she said her preference would go to Nigar Arpadarai, a young female professional now working as communications director for the Baku city circuit for F1.

Middle class professionals  to whom EURACTIV spoke said that after three decades in which the country had accomplished the much-necessary nation-building after the Soviet period, now the time of institution-building had come, and especially strengthening the judiciary.

“If we fix the judiciary, everything else will be extremely successful,” said an English-speaking professional in his fourties, who was very enthusiastic about the elections. As several others, he took the view that unlike other post-Soviet countries, Azerbaijan had made a rather successful transition, avoiding the kind of chaos that plagued Ukraine in particular.

Some of the young people still speak Russian, but clearly English is the number one foreign language in today’s Baku.

After the fall of the Soviet union, Azerbaijan was able to improve living standards and retain most of the young people who made their studies abroad. “We are able to get roughly the same conditions here,” the young professional explained, saying this was a powerful incentive to return home rather than contributing to the wealth of foreign societies.

He also argued that democracy was imperfect even in the West’s most developed societies, and that “exporting democracy” had not worked across the globe, in particular during the so-called “Arab Spring”.

A young female voter said these elections would not change much in the country, but would rather gradually set the ground for “completely different” political parties in the future. She was clearly optimistic that her country was going in the right direction.

In restaurants and bars in Baku, full of young urban professionals, optimism largely prevailed. EURACTIV couldn’t verity the mood in rural areas.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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